Monday :: Nov 19, 2007

Lessig for Obama, Wilentz for Clinton

by eriposte

Two individuals I respect have announced their endorsements in the Democratic Presidential campaign.

I'll start with well-known Stanford Law professor Larry Lessig who has endorsed his long-time friend Sen. Barack Obama. You can read his entire endorsement here - in a nutshell, he doesn't feel Sen. Clinton will bring about the kind of change he believes is needed (not to mention he is skeptical as to whether she'd be inclined to reverse bad copyright law from the Clinton years). I will highlight some portions of his blog post below and then offer some comments of my own:

Friendship, however, isn't the most compelling reason (for at least others) to support a candidate for President. I was therefore relieved and very happy that on substance, too, [Sen. Obama] is my candidate.

The closest leading competitor for my loyalty is of course Edwards. He's got great views about technology and privacy. He's got a fantastic commitment to changes that might well address the corruption that has become my focus. And he's come around to the right views about the war. I've long admired his passion and conviction. And but for fears about his flirting with protectionism, he would, in my view, make a great President.

The other front running Democrat, however, is not a close call for me. (Saying this is what terrified my newly allcaps friend.) She supported the war, but as my support of Edwards last time round indicates, I can forgive that. The parts I can't get over all relate to the issues around corruption. I signaled as much in my comments about her comments about lobbyists. We see two radically different worlds here. And were she President, I'd bet everything that we'd see radically little change.

But the part that gets me the most about Senator Clinton is the eager embrace of spinelessness. I don't get this in Democrats generally. I never have, but I especially don't get it after two defeats to the likes of George Bush (ok, one defeat, but let's put that aside for the moment). Our party seems constitutionally wedded to the idea that you wage a campaign with tiny speech. Say as little as possible. Be as uncontroversial as you can. Embrace the chameleon as the mascot. Fear only that someone would clearly understand what you believe. (Think of Kerry denying he supported gay marriage -- and recognize that the same sort of people who thought that would win him support are now inside the control room at ClintonHQ).

All politicians of course do this to some degree. And about some issues, I even get it. But what put me over the line with Senator Clinton was the refusal to join the bipartisan call that presidential debates be free. Not because this is a big issue. But because even on this (relatively) small issue, she couldn't muster the strength to do the right thing.

[Continued over the fold]


And that leaves Barack -- an easy choice for me (except for the "trailing Clinton" part) for lots of reasons.

First, and again, I know him, which means I know something of his character. "He is the real deal" has become my favorite new phrase. Everything about him, personally, is what you would dream a candidate should be. Integrity, brilliance, warmth, humor and most importantly, commitment. They all say they're all this. But for me, this part is easy, because about this one at least, I know.

Second, I believe in the policies. Clearly on the big issues -- the war and corruption. Obama has made his career fighting both. But also on the issues closest to me. As the technology document released today reveals, to anyone who reads it closely, Obama has committed himself to important and importantly balanced positions.

But the big part of this is a commitment to making data about the government (as well as government data) publicly available in standard machine readable formats. The promise isn't just the naive promise that government websites will work better and reveal more. It is the really powerful promise to feed the data necessary for the Sunlights and the Maplights of the world to make government work better. Atomize (or RSS-ify) government data (votes, contributions, Members of Congress's calendars) and you enable the rest of us to make clear the economy of influence that is Washington.

More here. Prof. Lessig is an icon in the technology law world and I have great respect for his views. As much as I have defended Sen. Clinton from misleading or false attacks on her positions or ideology, I also have concerns about her position on lobbyists and I don't know much about her positions on copyright law (FWIW, her website lists her agenda for "Government reform", she has reiterated her support for net neutrality and she has put forward a 9-point technology plan). That said, I would urge Prof. Lessig to also consider the fact that although Sen. Clinton has taken what is, in my opinion, the wrong position on lobbyists, her voting record is not what one would necessarily expect from someone who is wedded to lobbyists. For example, Prof. Lessig criticized her in a previous post on this topic:

After her comments on the lobbyists, it is clear enough that Senator Clinton has no such clear view. Indeed, quite to the contrary: were she elected, we'd get more of the "let me do enough to suggest I think this matters but not so much as to make a change" we've seen for 30 years. And if this election is to matter, this is precisely the sort of view that we need to defeat.

"The idea," Senator Clinton said, "that a contribution is somehow going to influence you ..." Right. That's precisely the idea. Not always. Not fundamentally. But obviously (isn't it? Or is the relationship between contributions and votes so brilliantly mapped on MAPLight just an amazing coincidence?) on the margins, when interests are strong and opposition oblivious, "contributions ... influence" judgments that otherwise would have been different. That, at least sometimes, is the problem.

If Sen. Clinton believes that contributions from corporate/lobbyist interests don't generally influence legislators, that would be wrong. However, if she feels that she herself is not particularly influenced by contributions, that is a more defensible position. While I haven't done a completely systematic study of contributions to Sen. Clinton and her voting record, I have looked into this a fair amount (more than anyone else I am aware of) and I certainly have not been able to find any systematic connection between contributions and votes. For example, she is frequently criticized (often misleadingly) for the contributions she has received from the healthcare industry - yet it is rarely pointed out that on the 2003 Medicare Bill (one that was aggressively supported by Big Pharma + HMOs) she voted against both the initial version (which many leading Democrats - incl. Sen. Biden and Sen. Dodd - voted for) and the final version of the Bill and made a lengthy floor statement in the Senate highlighting the major problems with the Bill. If anything, her voting record on issues that corporate interests hold near and dear seems to be fairly progressive and generally comparable to Sen. Obama's, and her ratings from progressive groups and labor interests are usually very good. Perhaps even more importantly, the judgement she has shown in (not) voting for reactionary and radical nominees (esp. judicial nominees) of Bush is pretty impressive and rarely noted given the long-term impact of judicial appointments (and her record on this is arguably better than that of netroots hero Sen. Russell Feingold). So, while it is fair to criticize her for her position on lobbyists, I think to do so without simultaneously giving her credit for her voting record is unfair.

Matt Stoller has more on Prof. Lessig's thoughts and he infers the following from Prof. Lessig's comments:

Lessig is arguing that Clinton has endorsed the system of lobbying funding, not that she's being bribed by telecom and cable interests.

Now, that, I believe, is a fair statement. Sen. Clinton may not be offering a full-throated attack on lobbyists but she's not exactly defending corruption either - quite the opposite. (I also disagree with Prof. Lessig on the significance of her caution on making Presidential debates free). Let me add that I am personally very impressed by Sen. Obama's vision for internet freedom and open and transparent government - and this gives me even more confidence that he would be a great President. Matt Stoller has a post on this at Open Left which I highly recommend you read.

Another academic that I highly respect is Pulitzer-Prize nominated history professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton - someone that Andrew Romano of Newsweek describes as "a "dyed-in-the-wool Democrat"--as if his 2006 Rolling Stone cover story "The Worst President in History?," about President George W. Bush, didn't give him away....a longtime Clinton supporter (he "came out" for Hillary on Wednesday) who's also a fiercely intellectual scholar of American politics...". Prof. Wilentz has endorsed Sen. Clinton in an interview with Newsweek and here are some snippets from that interview - make sure you read the entire interview at Newsweek (via Atrios):

So you don't find Obama's meta-arguments against "politics as usual" particularly convincing?
You cannot have a president who doesn't like politics. You will not get anything done. Period. I happen to love American politics. I think American politics is wonderful. I can understand why people don't. But one of the problems in America is that politics has been so soured, people try to be above it all. It's like Adlai Stevenson. In some ways, Barack reminds me of Stevenson.

There's always a Stevenson candidate. Bradley was one of them. Tsongas was one of them. They're the people who are kind of ambivalent about power. "Should I be in this or not... well, yes, because I'm going to represent something new." It's beautiful loserdom. The fact is, you can't govern without politics. That's what democracy is. Democracy isn't some utopian proposition by which the people suddenly rule. We're too complicated a country for that. We have too many interests here. You need someone who can govern, who can build the coalition and move the country forward. You hit on something that's really my pet peeve about the others. Edwards the same way, except he doesn't condemn the politics of the '60s, rather he talks about the special interests...

A populist slant.
Oy vey. Let's be real here about how American politics works. It's a posture. It makes people feel good, but it's not reality. They should be part of the party. The party is complicated, like a weird bird with so many wings it sometimes doesn't know how to fly. But I don't think any one of them can lead the way she can.

Do you agree with the people who think her "efficient, controlled" campaign is evidence of that?
I don't think it's so much her campaign. That's inside-baseball, Washington stuff--something to chatter about. To me, it's not so much that as it's the way she can hold a nuanced position, and think it through and say it and risk being called a waffler, when in fact she's not.

Edwards calls that "doubletalk"...
It's not like she's said A and then gone back and said B. She's been very upfront about how any particular position can evolve, and life changes, you don't just take a position and stick with it for all time. You take your positions on the basis of principle and reality.

What about the cold, calculating stereotype?
It's a stereotype. I mean, calculating--I'm all for calculating. What's wrong with calculating? She's called an opportunist. That's good! I'm for opportunity. You see an opportunity and you take it. She's not an opportunist in the sense that she's corrupt. But my generation--and this is the reason for the rise of the independents and so forth--was so turned off to politics that everybody became Adlai Stevenson. This is not good. You need a leader who's going to restore a sense of Democratic politics.

So it's a pragmatic argument? That she can get things done politically?
That's true, but it's beyond that. Pragmatism is an approach to power. It's not a philosophy. It's not just going for half a loaf or knowing when to compromise, although all that is important. Rather, it's an understanding of the provisional nature of all of our deeds--an understanding that the politics of hope, taken too far, can turn into the politics of dogma. Just as the politics of memory can turn into the politics of fear. Hillary actually reminds me more of what John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy were up to--more than anybody I've seen since. More than her husband.

But people always tie Obama to the Kennedys.
God knows why. His philosophy is much more like Eugene McCarthy and Adlai Stevenson. He's that kind of politician, in a post-Baby Boomer sense. If the argument we're having today in the party is like the one we had in '68 between the Kennedyites and the McCarthyites, she's Bobby Kennedy. She's not Eugene McCarthy. She's not the beautiful-loser idealist, or the person who's ambivalent about politics. She loves politics. Just as Bobby Kennedy loved politics. Bobby Kennedy could deal with Cesar Chavez and Mayor Daley. That's what you need in America.

What people found so attractive about Bobby Kennedy when he ran for president, though, was that despite his toughness he also gave off a sense of vulnerability. Hillary doesn't seem able to convey that vulnerability, or warmth, or humanness.
Talk to women out in the Midwest who've had a wandering husband. It's not just any woman politician, because they wouldn't have voted for Liddy Dole. It's Hillary. It's what she's been through. She's lived a life. But really it's less to do with people identifying with her than people thinking she'll get the job done. That's basically what people want out of politics. We're not a very ideological country. We're not terribly into virtue for virtue's sake. People really just want government to do what it's supposed to do.


But Hillary excites so much antagonism on the right. If she were elected, wouldn't it just be four years or eight years of the same old shouting?
You know who makes that argument more than anybody else? Republicans. This is a favorite Republican argument. They say, "We want to run against Hillary. She's the polarizing candidate and we're going to take advantage of that. She's going to rile up our base, et cetera, et cetera." Whenever Republicans tell us who they want us to nominate, we should nominate her. They're scared of her. Who else is going to build a coalition?

Like Prof. Lessig, Prof. Wilentz also makes compelling arguments. I have always respected the fact that Prof. Wilentz and many of his colleagues were prescient in the 1990s about the traditional media's GOP-hackery and how the media was completely wrong on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. As he wrote in in 2003:

Five years ago, I testified before Congress that history would harshly judge the unconstitutional impeachment drive against President Clinton. My position was fairly mainstream among American historians. By the time I testified, nearly 500 had signed a letter I helped to write with the distinguished scholars Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and C. Vann Woodward, deploring the impeachment on historical and constitutional grounds. Soon thereafter, a group of more than 400 leading legal scholars, including Cass Sunstein and Laurence Tribe, issued a similar statement.

Not surprisingly, Republicans lambasted both the historians' letter and my testimony, as did journalists and pundits playing amateur historians inside the right-wing media echo chamber. A group of 90 writers -- only three of them historians, but with a heavy contingent from the right-wing think tanks plus partisan ideologues from the Reagan and first Bush administrations, such as C. Boyden Gray -- composed a counter-statement attacking the historians. But a wide range of editorial writers and columnists in the so-called "liberal media" also denounced the historians for being "gratuitous" "condescending" and "partisan."

The historians' verdict was clear: The impeachment drive against President Clinton lacked constitutional and political legitimacy. The journalists' opinion was equally clear: The impeachment was legitimate, and the historians were really a fusty collection of liberal elitists who had no business sticking their noses into public affairs.

Now an extraordinary thing has happened. Journalists from across the political spectrum are finally acknowledging that impeachment was mostly a partisan crusade on trumped-up charges to bring down a popular president. "From the viewpoint of history," the conservative Andrew Sullivan wrote recently in the New York Observer, "it's going to seem deranged." They have conceded that numerous allegations noisily leveled against Clinton and repeated endlessly in the news media of which they are a part have turned out to be bogus.
Clearly, looking back, the anti-impeachment historians get to say we told you so. But the more disturbing point is this: Impeachment isn't just "history." Some of the key "right-wing fanatics" who peddled "tainted, planted, unfounded, retracted, distorted, misleading and plain nonexistent evidence" that led to a "Kafkaesque" political "show trial" have more power than ever in politics and the media -- and have, it seems, actually benefited, personally and politically, from their attacks on the Constitution. The current corrected revised accounts by journalists leave the misimpression that only a few marginal right-wing zanies of passing importance were involved in the illegitimate effort to bring Clinton down. As the now uncontested facts around impeachment show, that is hardly the case.
Slowly but surely, most recently with the publication of "The Clinton Wars," historical facts have changed the prevailing wisdom of the chattering classes about the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Historical research, now recognized as accurate, has made the journalists' original accounts look tendentious and often false. In the battle begun in 1998 between historians and journalists over the facts of the case and the legitimacy of impeachment, the historians have won.

But the journalists' insistence that we all put the matter to rest is itself a continuation of the partisanship and hopelessly confused logic that drove the impeachment effort in the first place. That insistence amounts to amnesty for abuses against the Constitution, some of which were committed by persons who now help to run the country, and who are utterly unapologetic for what they did. It is less a pardon than a willful act of forgetting that lets the guilty off the hook -- and that leaves them and their rackets, unchallenged, in power.

Abraham Lincoln once remarked that none of us can escape history. That includes those who conceived, aided and abetted the unconstitutional impeachment of Bill Clinton. The trouble is, many of those people are still very much with us, have been amply rewarded for their crimes, and continue to wield extraordinary power. History will condemn the rest of us if we do not now, at last, hold them accountable for what they did.

That's all for now.

eriposte :: 6:14 AM :: Comments (4) :: Digg It!